Top 10 Action Movies

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Peter Bradshaw on action movies

In some ways, it should be the quintessential cinema genre. After all, what does the director shout at the beginning of a take? Action – at times a euphemism for violence and machismo – evolved into a recognisable genre in the 80s. Gunplay and athleticism resurfaced in a sweatier and more explicitly violent form, with movies such as Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood. The hardware was all-important, and the metallic sheen of the guns was something to be savoured alongside the musculature of the heroes. The genre spawned the action hero. These were not pretty-boys there to melt female hearts: they were there to get a roar of approval from the guys. The ultimate action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became governor of California. Who knows if there will be a constitutional change to get an action star into the White House?

10. The Last of the Mohicans

Ferocious hand-to-hand combat, stunning scenery and Daniel Day-Lewis tearing through the forest, bare-chested like a force of nature. Eighteenth-century action drama might have looked like an outdoorsy departure from cop thrillers for Michael Mann, but he turned up the heat of James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier fable: the story of Hawkeye (Day-Lewis), adopted by Mohicans after his parents were killed.

It is 1757, and the British and French are waging war for the colony, with native American tribes making allegiances on either side. Allied to no one, Hawkeye is the first American hero in the western’s mould of manliness. There is a woman involved, of course, and a gutsy one at that: Cora (Madeleine Stowe), who shows her mettle early on when she slips a gun into her pocket. Hawkeye comes to her rescue when she is ambushed en route to join her father, a British officer – Mann delivering an epic helping of romance with the action.

Day-Lewis had won an Oscar a couple of years earlier for My Left Foot and his immersion method acting was still something of a novelty in 1992. To prepare for the role of Hawkeye he learned to live hand-to-mouth in the forest, skinning animals and building canoes. Matching him sinew for sinew is Wes Studi as the bloodcurdlingly vengeful villain Magua, who vows to rip the heart out of an old adversary. He meets his match in Cora’s teenage sister in one of the film’s most extraordinary scenes. Gripping to its clifftop showdown. Cath Clarke

9. Goldfinger

This was the point in Ian Fleming‘s series of novels at which many critics thought he might have stepped over the line into self-parody. Among the movies, this is where the series – the franchise, by now – stepped out of the shadow of Sax Rohmer and Eric Ambler and really got under way. Fleming purists be damned: the gadgets, the gold-painted girls and the cartoonish henchmen (paging Oddjob!), along with the go-go girls ‘n’ gunplay credit sequence and John Barry’s music, were what the series was all about by this time, and every subsequent Bond movie used Goldfinger as its template.

Where to start? The card game that opens the movie or the epic golf match in the middle? The gold-obsessed villain or the hulking Korean hardman? The near-castration with the laser beam or the gangster compacted in his Continental? And who could forget sexually ambiguous Pussy Galore, as essayed by husky-voiced, karate-hopping 40-year-old bombshell Honor Blackman? It’s a compendium of everything one loves about 007 – and with Connery at his apogee. Along with the Beatles, the most significant and most remunerative British cultural export of the 60s.John Patterson

8. The Adventures of Robin Hood

What a strange and different movie this might have been had it starred Jimmy Cagney, as was originally planned. Happily his suave and seductive replacement, Errol Flynn, made the part his own, and the movie still stands as one of the most energetic and likable swashbucklers of Hollywood’s prewar heyday. Fine-tuned for endless thrills and maximum entertainment value, Robin Hood shows the Warner Brothers house style at its best, with every part, small or large, perfectly cast with one or another of the studio’s contract players: Alan Hale as a rambunctious Little John, Eugene Pallette as a gravel-voiced Friar Tuck, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the breathily virginal Oliva de Havilland as a winsome Maid Marian.

Plot-wise, it’s Walter Scott (he who first split arrow with arrow) meets the gruff, left-inclined Warner Brothers writing unit, with Hood’s “rob-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor” ethic striking a particularly popular-frontish chord in the late stages of the Great Depression, from which this movie was surely a delightful and transporting 102 minutes of relief and escapism – and all that in sparkling Technicolor! JP

7. Die Hard

Arnold Schwarzenegger may be beefier and Sylvester Stallone may direct his own films but, admit it, you love Bruce Willis the most. Actually, that’s not strictly true. You don’t love Bruce Willis at all. Bruce Willis made Hudson Hawk and Perfect Stranger. Bruce Willis named one of his own children Rumer. Bruce Willis fancies himself as a pop star. No, it’s John McClane who you love. And even that’s not strictly true. You don’t love the homicidal lunatic from Die Hard 2, or the ancient bald-headed superman from Die Hard 4. You love John McClane from the first Die Hard. The barefoot, vest-wearing John McClane, trapped in a skyscraper full of terrorists at Christmas and surviving purely on instinct alone. Of course you love him. Why wouldn’t you?

But there’s more to Die Hard than just one character. It’s a brilliant, suspenseful, witty, drumskin-tight action film littered with truly iconic moments, and it arguably hasn’t been bettered in almost a quarter of a century. Alan Rickman soars as the urbane terrorist Hans Gruber, Bonnie Bedelia is convincingly ballsy as Willis’s wife and Hart Bochner damn near steals the show as the loudmouth cokehead who almost gets everyone killed. You’ve probably never met anybody who doesn’t like Die Hard, and there’s a very good reason for that. It’s dangerously close to perfect. Stuart Heritage

6. Bullitt

Sure, there’s a fantastic car chase in it – one of the first, still one of the best – but Peter Yates’s first American movie is so much more than a duel on wheels. First off, it belongs in the esteemed company of Greed, Vertigo, The Lineup, Dirty Harry and Zodiac as one of the finest movies set and shot in San Francisco, that most beguilingly cinematic of American cities. Secondly, it offers the distilled essence of Steve McQueen as an actor and icon at the pinnacle of his career. Exercising his usual restraint, the actor (working as his own producer) pruned every redundant word from his own role, making Bullitt perhaps the most taciturn hero of the 60s – McQueen knew that the less he said, the more intently the audience focused on him.

He is the near-silent centre of a very busy, compelling and violent crime drama. Blessed with the fresh eyes of newly landed Englishman Yates (and genius cameraman William Fraker), the movie makes San Francisco fresh and alive, but also completely remakes and modernises the bleak, sleazy gangster demi-monde in which Bullitt does his hunting – moviegoers wouldn’t see those same pointy, elongated shirt collars on gangsters again until Goodfellas. And the moment when one gangster gets blown away with a pump-action shotgun, lifting him off his feet and halfway across the room, was a key turn in the development of on-screen violence before Sam Peckinpah rewrote the rules a year later in The Wild Bunch.

The final pursuit across the runways of San Francisco airport inspired a similar white-knuckle sequence in Michael Mann’s Heat, which is to phantasmagoric, nocturnal LA what Bullitt was to San Francisco. Oh, and there’s this great car chase … JP

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark? The hat? The theme tune? The weird Chinese boy whose presence hasn’t really dated very well? No, not that last one, he was in the next film. But the point is this: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film that introduced Indiana Jones to a grateful planet, was born a fully formed classic. The film is almost perfect, right from its gloriously protracted opening all the way to its ironic, almost downbeat ending.

Dreamed up in the all too brief post-Empire Strikes Back/pre-Howard the Duck golden era of George Lucas‘s career, Indiana Jones was envisioned as a freewheeling homage to pulpy wartime serials like The Lone Ranger and Hawk of the Wilderness. The casting of Harrison Ford was nothing short of a masterstroke – allowing him to play a more conventional hero than he’d been able to in Star Wars, but still leaving plenty of room for his world-weary cynicism.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film from a different era; a Boys-Own era when you were still allowed to have cartoonish Nazis for villains and the phrase “produced by George Lucas” didn’t inspire sleepless nights and palpitations. There’s romance, there’s adventure, there are world-class death scenes and there’s definitely no sign of Shia LaBeouf getting chased about by some big ants in the jungle. SH

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